Matt Christie examines the evidence that should decide the outcome and makes his Anthony Joshua vs Kubrat Pulev prediction
AGE AND PHYSICAL EQUIPMENT
JOSHUA: The WBA, IBF and WBO titlist is 31 years old and likely at his peak. His physique remains a work of art and at six feet six inches he’s an imposing figure, he can box and punch with serious authority and is the very embodiment of a 21st century heavyweight. As a professional, the 2012 Olympic champion has answered a bell 103 times with only 15 of those rounds providing him with any real trouble or punishment. In short, he’s immeasurably fresher than his ageing rival.
PULEV: The thickset Bulgarian is 39 years old and is likely six or seven years past his best. An elite amateur who lost in the first round of the 2008 Olympics to Oscar Rivas, Pulev has a long fighting career behind him and takes far more punches these days than he used to. He’s likely to weigh around 245-250lbs, which is comparable to “AJ” and though only an inch-and-a-half shorter that deficit doubles when it comes to reach. Mentally robust, don’t expect him to be overawed in any way by his opponent.
EDGE: Unquestionably Joshua.
JOSHUA: Hard to fault his professional progress, which now dates back seven years and reads 23-1 (21). Along the way he’s fought (and defeated) Dillian Whyte, Wladimir Klitschko, Alexander Povetkin, Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker and, after losing the first fight, Andy Ruiz Jnr. At amateur level, after a rapid and highly impressive rise, he reached the pinnacle in 2012 when he won gold in London. Even so, he was launched into world class quickly in both codes and, fairly or not, there’s still a feeling he’s learning on the job.
PULEV: He was among the best in the world at heavyweight/super-heavyweight for much of his amateur career and thus his education and fundamentals are sound. Italian Roberto Cammerelle, whom Joshua twice edged in major tournaments, was a perennial amateur bogeyman for Pulev, 28-1 (14). He’s been a professional since 2009, which is four years longer than Joshua but he’s only partaken in five more bouts. Tellingly, he’s fought 100 more rounds. In truth, though he’s been a contender for longer than Joshua has been a pro, his level of opposition is far inferior to his rival’s.
EDGE: Pulev, just. But this must come with a sizeable caveat: Joshua has been consistently fighting in world class for the last five years while Pulev clearly has not.
JOSHUA: This really depends on what you like. He overcame some early problems to flatten Alexander Povetkin in seven rounds in 2018 a little over a year after his unforgettable up-and-downer with Wladimir Klitschko. Both bouts told us plenty about Joshua’s toughness. Or so we thought; the manner in which he fell apart against Andy Ruiz Jnr in June 2019 was hugely concerning at the time but, in what has to be classed as his most disciplined and technically impressive outing, he dominated the rematch over 12 rounds six months later.
PULEV: One has to go back to 2012 for his wins over Alexander Ustinov and Alexander Dimitrenko for a glimpse of Pulev at his best. In both of those fights he used his jab to bash up taller opponents and used quick feet and reflexes to stay close while remaining elusive. It says it all about the policies and rankings of sanctioning bodies that he’s the IBF’s number one contender despite his only noteworthy wins since 2014 came via tedious decisions over Dereck Chisora (2016) and Hughie Fury (2018).
EDGE: Joshua stands head and shoulders above Pulev here.
JOSHUA: After flooring Andy Ruiz Jnr in round three he was quickly dropped twice and lucky to hear the bell in a thrilling stanza. Joshua struggled to regroup inside Madison Square Garden as Operation: Conquer America went horribly wrong. The Watford man was decked twice in the seventh and stopped standing up when he would not/could not walk forward when asked to by the referee. After winning the rematch, he told the BBC he was suffering from illness in the build-up to the first fight.
PULEV: His most recent outing – a 10-round points win over the ancient and overweight Rydell Booker 12 months ago – was glaringly unimpressive. Pulev was easy to hit on the inside and found it difficult to cut off the ring; something peak Pulev used to do without even trying. His only loss, to Wladimir Klitschko, also told a tale on his susceptibilities against stand-up tall punchers. Klitschko had no problem finding a home for his power shots through the middle, decking Pulev four times and stopping him in five.
EDGE: Joshua’s lone loss was more catastrophic but Pulev’s form since 2013 has consistently been underwhelming.
JOSHUA: A far better boxer than he’s given credit for who is happy on the front or back foot, Joshua increasingly likes to pepper with the jab until an opening arises. That’s when he steps in with his left, putting substantial force behind it before launching his battering ram straight right. That power is unquestionably his biggest strength and, when an opponent is in trouble, his fast hands generally take care of business quickly. He utilises his physical advantages well and is adept at firing through the middle – a crucial key to victory against Pulev.
PULEV: The canny Pulev, who won’t be hugely outsized by the champion, does his best work with his lead hand. The underdog is versatile and clever, he can stay close and unsettle his opponents or he can box smartly from range, often exclusively with his left. He’s a better body puncher than Joshua and his somewhat excessive level of self-confidence speaks of vast mental strength. Though he’s far from unstoppable, Pulev is durable and has a proven engine; even in later years, he’s shown he’s just as strong in the last round as he is in the first.
EDGE: Joshua carries all the aces at this stage, one suspects.
JOSHUA: Joshua can be careless when he throws his left hook, particularly when he leads with it. His inside game is improving but not faultless, and this is where Pulev is arguably at his best. The Englishman’s punch resistance will always be a question mark (that’s heavyweight boxing, folks) and his inability to stem the tide once Ruiz started teeing off drew criticism. Throw in his perceived stamina issues and it’s easy to see why some are predicting that Pulev will cause real problems for the favourite.
PULEV: At the risk of labouring the point, Pulev appears to be in sharp decline. One only has to compare his recent outings with footage of him in 2012-2014 and the evidence is stark. While doing so, it also becomes clear that even Pulev at his best was never quite at championship-winning standard. Though his feet have always been clever, his defence has not. He leaves holes in the middle which a fighter like Joshua can surely exploit. And though that self-confidence of his is a strength, he also has a tendency to try too hard to prove he’s not hurt when he is. Such sloppiness against Joshua could spell disaster.
EDGE: This is a category that Joshua might fall short in against someone like Tyson Fury, but against a shop-worn Pulev, he has the edge.
For the sake of balance, it’s only fair to say that a seasoned veteran like Pulev should not be written off completely. But it’s just as important to stress that he’s secured this challenge thanks to the IBF’s questionable rankings (do they seriously believe 39-year-old Pulev is third only to Joshua and Fury?) and not because he’s scored a series of impressive wins. Pulev, who would have been a more difficult proposition when this bout was first ordered three years ago, has been treading water for a long time.
Joshua may not come out all guns blazing and Pulev will know he cannot be drawn into a firefight early. The Bulgarian, who hasn’t fought anyone this lively since Klitschko in 2014, will nonetheless fancy his chances.
Joshua, one suspects, is now clever enough to be patient when mounting his attacks but the feeling here is that he won’t have to wait long to get his man in serious trouble.
When that happens, expect Joshua – buoyed by the 1,000 fans in attendance and the accuracy of his right hand – to go to work and finish matters as early as the third or fourth round.